The death of beloved veterinarian and Hope Elephants co-founder Dr. James “Jim” L. Laurita in a tragic accident Sept. 9, has left the community bereft.

Overnight, a little shrine with flowers and notes sprang up in the front of the organization's store on Main Street in Camden, as a stunned community groped for ways to express its grief and shock. Another shrine formed at the facility in Hope, with flowers blanketing a table in the driveway.

Laurita died early last Tuesday while caring for retired circus elephants Rosie and Opal when he fell on the concrete floor of their barn and was subsequently stepped on by an elephant, causing asphyxiation, according to the medical examiner's report.

Originally from the upstate town of Schroon Lake, N.Y., Laurita first became fascinated by elephants when he and his brother Tom worked off and on for Carson & Barnes Circus, based in Hugo, Okla. The brothers had a juggling act together, and later Tom became the circus' ringmaster and Jim the elephant handler. Following that, he held other positions as an elephant handler and trainer before enrolling in veterinary school at Cornell in 1985.

During his veterinary education, Laurita went to southern India and studied captive elephants in Kerala and Tamil Nadu provinces.

He later came to Midcoast Maine, where he worked at Camden Hospital for Animals (and was previously part owner) since 1990. He and Tom started Hope Elephants in 2011. Rosie and Opal, the elephants who lived in Hope, were two of the herd of 26 elephants from Carson & Barnes Circus he had worked with years before. They were retired from the circus and on loan from Endangered Ark Foundation, an elephant sanctuary in Hugo, Okla., where they have since been returned.

The therapies Laurita was using with Rosie and Opal were ground-breaking in the sense that they had not been used with elephants before, but they had been used and their effectiveness demonstrated with both horses and humans, said Hope Elephants Director Andrew Stewart.

Stewart, like others who worked with Laurita, spoke of his dedication to animals and the people who cared for them. He first got to know Laurita through his veterinary practice with small animals, Stewart said. The men “bonded over coffee” when Stewart owned Hope General Store and Laurita would come in for his morning cup.

Later, Stewart, who holds a degree in animal biology, got involved with Hope Elephants, first working in the barn cleaning up after Rose and Opal. “He was a great mentor and a wonderful person,” Stewart said. He added that Laurita “was tireless, he gave everything he could to the animals and to the people helping him. … He took the time to make people feel important, and he listened to people.”

Stewart summed up what Laurita meant to the community. “Jim was one of the real characters of our community, someone people respected and cherished and enjoyed being around.”

Boyish-looking even at 56, Laurita enjoyed sharing his passion for elephants with children and adults as much as he did working with Rosie and Opal, Stewart said, and people responded to him. He sold his interest in Camden Hospital for Animals to fund the start-up of Hope Elephants, and, according to the organization, also deferred part of the modest salary he was paid for his work with the elephants.

Maridel Felger of Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote in an email, “Just last week we brought our 4-year-old grandson to visit Hope Elephants while we visited the area. We listened as Dr. Jim spoke fondly of Rosie and Opal and watched as he worked with and fed them. Even though we did not know Dr. Jim personally, we were moved by his passion to provide care for these lovely animals.”

Dr. Bjorn Lee, a former colleague of Laurita's, worked with him for a number of years, both before and after Lee became a veterinarian himself, even becoming a partner in Camden Hospital for Animals for a short time. He is now at Pen Bay Veterinary Associates in Rockport.

“He was a brilliant doctor. He was compassionate, he was fun. People really enjoyed being with Jim,” Lee said. He said Laurita balanced professional skill with a sense of humor that helped pet owners through difficult moments.

Lee also said Laurita had been a role model to him as a father. He recounted how, when Laurita's sons were young, he got neighbors to run around the yard dressed as elves so the boys would believe in Santa Claus.

Craig Harwood, of Lincolnville, was kennel manager at Camden Hospital for Animals from 1990, the year Laurita arrived, to 1999, and again from 2009 to 2013. Harwood originally came here to help his sister move from Massachusetts. When he saw the kennel manager job advertised in the local paper, he applied and went in to talk to Laurita, who hired him because “I was the only one who petted the animals,” Harwood said.

“He's been like my brother ever since I've been living here,” Harwood said of Laurita. “He was very caring,” and made sure employees who were hurt at work got the care they needed. The animal hospital had many volunteers, he said, all of whom were welcomed by Laurita. He encouraged them to pursue their interest in caring for animals, Harwood said.

When it came to clients who had a hard time paying for their animals' care, Laurita was willing to let them pay a little at a time, Harwood said. He never turned anyone away because they could not pay.

Harwood told a story about a client who came into the veterinary office and said there was a cormorant in Camden Harbor with a hook stuck in its mouth. So Harwood and Laurita borrowed the client's dinghy and tried for an hour to catch the bird. “We were laughing the whole time,” Harwood said.

“Everyone around here like him because he was genuine,” the former kennel manager said.

Jessica Wadoski of Appleton works at Little River Veterinary Hospital in Northport. She first met Laurita when he took care of her pet rat while she was a high school student in the 1990s. He earned her gratitude by successfully removing a tumor from the rat.

In 2007, when she was hired to assist Laurita as a veterinary technician, “I thought I'd hit the lottery,” she said. “I thought the world of him.”

Wadoski and Laurita worked together to repair the shell of a turtle that had been hit by a car using wire and glue, and Wadoski was later able to return the turtle to Hosmer Pond. “Nothing was insignificant to him,” she said.

In emails and phone calls to this paper, patients and former colleagues expressed their shock and distress at Laurita's death and their love for him. Many of them recounted his compassion for them and their animals at the time of a pet's death. Others expressed gratitude for his treating their pet, or even an injured stray, at night, on holidays, whenever there was a need. Here are a few of them:

From Caroline Morong of Camden: “Jim has always been the best vet ever, but became even more a hero to our family when our dog had an incident a couple of summers ago. Hearing from my husband that Tucker was most likely having a heat stroke incident, I picked up the phone and called Jim at home … something I hated to do … told him the situation and right away he told me he would meet me at the trail head. Up he hiked to the top of mount Megunticook with the 'doggie stretcher,' where he administered life-saving meds to our dog and then proceeded to carry him down with others. That day, Jim went from being the most amazing vet ever to being more of a hero to our family than prior. Words just can't describe my deep respect and adoration I had for Jim and his incredible laid-back love of animals and people.”

From Cathy Hardy of Lincolnville: “Dr. Jim's compassion and caring for my animals over the past 25 years was shown in so many ways. … [T]he time I found a young beagle sitting in the middle of Rte. 235 on my way home one dark winter night. She was in shock as I loaded her into my car and raced up the road directly to Jim's house in Hope. He immediately came out, looked at her, and rushed her in to the office for additional treatment. …”

From Jesse Brower of Boston and Camden: “Dr. Laurita was the first person to teach me about loss as a child, having to put my first cat to sleep when her time was up. He was so nice to us about it, but especially to me, and gave me a little book from the waiting room to take home all about another little boy who had to say good bye to his beloved family dog. That small gesture of kindness I experienced at the age of 7 has stuck with me for the 20-plus years that have followed. Dr. Laurita taught me the importance of remembering the good times we spent with the folks we loved and lost, rather than the time we'll miss without them.”

Harwood recalled some words that Laurita would often say in consoling people who were losing a beloved animal, which seem a fitting way to say goodbye to him, “We're here for a good time, not a long time.”

Hope Elephants has established the Jim Laurita Fund to help his family and raise funds to pay back the loans Laurita had made to the organization. To contribute, go to hopeelephants.org.